Divining The True Motives Of The Calm Killers Of Vazgen Sarkisian

By Mark Grigorian in Tblisi (Published on October 29, 1999)

However, after the hostages were released following overnight negotiations with President Robert Kocharian, and the five gunmen were placed in custody at the Ministry of Security, claims that the gunmen really were spearheading a coup attempt were quickly dismissed.

At the time it did look like a real coup, but soon it became clear that the action was limited to the assembly chamber. There were no matching scenes at government agencies, airports and TV stations, no move by army and police units and no organised public demonstrations in support of the gunmen.

On the contrary, as events developed, the total isolation of the five terrorists became increasingly evident. In fact it seemed hard to discern any clear political objective in the attack beyond the immediate wish to kill Sarkisian and send a bloody message to whoever follows him.

"Today's murder is going to be a shock for people," said lead gunman Nairi Unanian, a onetime extreme nationalist and former journalist, speaking to local TV. "It was intended as a warning to the rest of the government. It doesn't matter who's going to replace those who died in the shootout today. From now on they will serve the people, because they see what can happen if they don't."

And Vazgen Manukian, chairman of the opposition National Democratic Union was one of many to dismiss speculation that the attack was a bid to sabotage ongoing talks to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Azerbaijan. Unanian himself told reporters that "this is n-o-t an issue of Karabakh!"

"There were no political motives behind the attack," deputy Galust Saaki an told Reuters news agency as he was leaving the building, his jacket still stained with blood. "They were just schizophrenics who came to parliament and did their barbaric deed."

In fact many observers soon concluded that the ultimate beneficiary of this week's carnage will be Kocharian. Before his assassination, Sarkisian was considered to be the most powerful politician in the country, with strong links with the military.

It was Sarkisian, as leader of the nationalist Republican Party who played a key role in forcing former president Levon Ter-Petrosian's resignation in 1998, and together with Karen Demirchian's People's Party, saw Kocharian into the presidency. But in May Sarkisian and Demirchian, then allied as the Miasnutun (Unity) bloc scored a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.

Since then Sarkisian's activities had began to overshadow the president, despite Kocharian's established presidential authority over the Armenian parliament.

As for Demirchian, he too was one of Kocharian's main potential opponents. A former first secretary of the communist party of Armenia from 1974 to 1988, he came second in the 1998 presidential election, with some 40 percent of votes. The murder of the two influential political leaders weakens the Miasnutun bloc's control of parliament and government dramatically and is bound to have serious consequences.

Considering the violence of the initial attack, Unanian's surrender was smoothly arranged under Kocharian's direct eye. He had stated publicly that the gunmen would "escape reprisal," and personally guaranteed that armed police would not try to storm the building.

Witnesses noted that Unanian seemed sane and well composed. He allowed reporters to be freed first, then allowed the minister of health Gayk Nikogossian to evacuate the wounded. Meanwhile the direct negotiations with Unanian were led by Alexan Harutiunian, chief of staff at the president's office, who knew Unanian from his days as a philology student at Yerevan State University before 1988, when they were both members of the activists of a student movement for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

Unanian and the others were then taken directly to the investigation insulator in the Ministry of National Defense of Armenia. As for his alleged extreme nationalism, Vahan Hovanissian, leader of the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party went on record saying that Unanian had been a member of his party, but for less that two years in 1991-92, when he was expelled. Hovanissian did not elaborate on the reasons why. He did describe the gunmen as "sick people".

The fortunes of Dashnaktsutyun, a left wing and nationalist organisation active in Armenia since the pre-Soviet period took a boost when Kocharian came to power. Always influential both in Armenia and among the Armenian diaspora, it was banned in 1994 by then president Ter-Petrosian.

Ter-Petrosian accused Dashnaktutyun of running secret units, called Dro, which smuggled drugs and arms and killed political murders. That kept it out of the 1995 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections, despite its popularity. This fact cast a doubt upon the legitimacy of the vote.

When Kocharian replaced Ter-Petrosian in 1998, Kocharian lifted the ban and released some Dashnaktsutyun leaders imprisoned in 1995, accused of attempting a coup d'etat. Since then, Kocharian has enjoyed good relations with the party.

Dashnaktsutyun has disowned Unanian, but the party has yet to disown its past calls for the destruction of those it regards as enemies of Armenia. And Ter-Petrosian's charges that Dashnaktsutyun was a terrorist organisation were never fully refuted by the party leaders. In the event the Dashnak leader threw the party behind Kocharian. "It is very important not to allow emotions to rule us," he told journalists, "and to rally behind the president."

The angriest response came from Sarkisian's old friends among the military. They were close supporters of Sarkisian, a popular former defence minister and champion of the rights of veterans of the bitter 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan.

They persistently ask whether Unanian had outside help - particularly on how he got their weapons into the building, presumably hidden under the long trenchcoats worn by the gunmen - dress that would have normally drawn immediate suspicion from the parliamentary guards.

"The internal and external security of the state is in danger," said a statement from the defence ministry, repeatedly broadcast on state TV on Thursday. It called for the minister of the interior, the minister of national security, and the prosecutor general to quit.

"Under these conditions, the army cannot remain indifferent and demands the resignations," the statement said. "Those who allowed this crime to be perpetrated are guilty before the Armenian people. This was possible only because of a total absence of security."

Mark Grigorian is an IWPR project journalist based in Yerevan.


Also in this issue

By Mikael Danialian in Yerevan (Published on October 29, 1999)
Armenia's president is weak and its prime minister is dead. Whatever follows the attack on the National Assembly, political change is inevitable.
The idea of resignation on principle - even over such a sensitive issue as Nagorno-Karabakh - is a new one on most Azeri politicians. If the wave of departures from the Azeri government have a cause, it is little to do with honour.
By Mark Grigorian in Tblisi (Published on October 29, 1999)
Chechen refugees are trapped in limbo, unable to return to Grozny or leave the country while Russia and Ingushetia prevaricate on reopening the border.
Armenia's stand off at its parliament may be at an end but the political fallout from Wednesday's televised carnage will linger for months yet.